Cows and greens have coexisted in agricultural areas since day one, but industrial agriculture and the modern plastics industry have put them together with consequences no one could have foreseen. A food-poisoning tragedy has led to an environmental disaster. And if Benbrook is correct, somewhere in California’s fields or processing plants, waiting for the right conditions, is another potentially fatal outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7.
Like many other subspecialties, the world of mass-produced greens has its own rather bizarre language. Here are some key terms. Biosolids: human fecal material in sewerage sludge. Clean: refers to a field surrounded by bare dirt. Food safety barrier: a low fence designed to keep small mammals and reptiles out of fields (also known as a frog fence). Foreign object complaints: consumer complaints about twigs, stones, insects, weeds, bits of metal—anything that is not supposed to be in their bags of salad. Four-legged food safety concern: a farm dog. Harborage: native vegetation that provides habitat for small mammals, reptiles, and beneficial insects. Kill step: cooking. Nonsynthetic crop treatments: manure. Product degradation: rot. Reentry interval: time that must elapse between when a crop is sprayed with a pesticide and when farm laborers can safely return to work.
Think Outside the Bag
· Cooking is the only way to kill bacteria in greens for certain, but there are some less drastic steps you can take to protect yourself.
· You’ve heard it a thousand times: Buy local; buy small. Packaged produce in the supermarket can be more than two weeks old. Produce from a CSA or farmers market packed in ordinary, unsealed plastic bags is most likely picked a day or two before you buy it.
· Buy whole heads or bunches of intact plants; precut edges provide a particularly easy point of entry for bacteria.
· Washing won’t get all the bugs out of contaminated bagged greens, but it can remove some surface bacteria.
· If you do buy prewashed, factory-bagged produce, look at the “use before” date. If it’s getting close, avoid the product. The longer it has been in the bag, the more opportunities for pathogens to grow.
· Never, ever eat uncooked greens from bags whose expiration date has passed, no matter how fresh they appear.